Sandspur Island

My name is Jack, and I am a sophomore Environmental Science major from Wilmington, North Carolina. My internship is with the one and only Lindsay Dubbs, doing research here at CSI. I am working on the Salinity Gradient Energy Project, which attempts to assess the environmental impacts of potential Reverse Electrodialysis (RED) power plants on surrounding ecosystems.

You might be asking yourself, what the heck is reverse electrodialysis? Well, put simply, its a new form of renewable energy that generates power by taking advantage of the natural movement of water molecules from low to high salinity.

RED power plants would have to be placed in areas where there is really fresh water right next to really salty water. They would have to take in water from both sources, and also let water out somewhere. Unfortunately, that would impact the surrounding environment, and the Salinity Gradient Energy Project is an attempt to assess how large that impact is.

My part in the whole project is attempting to characterize the phytoplankton community in the locations that have been proposed as eligible sites by graduate student Hannah Palko. To do this, I used High Performance Liquid Chromatography, which allowed me to identify and quantify the pigments in water samples, which can then be used to make inferences about the species of plankton present in the sample.

But I am not writing this post to talk to you about chemistry. I understand that not everyone finds that as interesting as I do. I am writing to tell you about my experience in the field collecting samples for analysis.

We woke up on Sunday morning at roughly 5 o’clock. The Outer Banks Marathon was taking place, so all the roads were going to be closed by 6:30. We had to get an early start if we were going to make it out of Wanchese.

The long drive down to our sample sites consisted of breakfast at Bojangles, music, and conversation. We stopped at our first sample location and could not have been more thankful for how beautiful the day was.

After gathering our data and samples, we headed off to Beaufort for lunch at Plaza Mexico. It was amazing. Endless chips and salsa, cheap, affordable vegetarian options. Needless to say, I was in heaven.

Our next sampling location was right up the street, just north of downtown Beaufort, at a public dock. After collecting our samples, we decided to kayak across the channel to the Rachel Carson Reserve, or as I like to call it, “sandspur island.”

Growing up in Wilmington, I was accustomed to getting sandspurs on my shoes, on my socks, on everything really. But since it was mid November, I figured sandspur season was over. Boy was I wrong. I decided to go barefoot to the island because I didn’t want my shoes to get wet. Looking back, that was a terrible decision.

Claire, Ted and Hannah were calmly exploring around the island, looking for wild horses, while I was busy standing in one place trying to get sandspurs out of my bare feet. In some spots there were no sandspurs, and I could freely move around. In others, they literally covered the ground.

On the way back to the kayaks, I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked Ted and Hannah to carry me back. I felt so bad for being so dumb and not wearing shoes, but it ended up being a good team building exercise.

All in all, it was a great day in the field, and going out and seeing the sample sites that I had been analyzing in the lab was a wonderful learning experience.

Hands On Learning At The Outer Banks Field Site

The day to day routine of shuffling around from lecture hall to lecture hall at UNC-Chapel Hill can get old really quick. While lectures are an important part of the learning experience, after a year of the same old same old, I was ready to take a break from the norm and escape the traditional classroom setting. So I came to the Outer Banks.

Thus far, I have not been disappointed by my choice. The learning experience is exactly what I had hoped it would be. Instead of being stuck in a classroom for five days a week, we are often out and about, exploring the Outer Banks and learning about the coast.

Just a few weeks ago, Lindsay held ecology class outside. And what’s a better place to learn about estuarine systems than right outside of CSI, surrounded by marshland?

Views from the third floor of CSI
View from the third floor of CSI

Lectures can oftentimes become disengaging when your instructors seem to be talking about abstract topics that are hard to visualize. Thankfully, at the Outer Banks field site, the course material is right outside the window.

Lindsay trekking through the mud to show us various plant species

During her lesson on estuarine systems, Lindsay was able to first explain the adaptations that plants have to the conditions they are in, and then we all walked a hundred feet away and she showed us.

All in all, I have learned about as much outside of the classroom as I have inside, and that is how I like it. Getting outside and observing nature allows me to focus better in class, and really get the most out of my in-class experiences. Andy wasn’t lying when he said that the Outer Banks field site was different from all the other field sites. It is truly a unique, hands on experience that is very intellectually satisfying, and most importantly, fun.